Julian Joyce / BBC News – 2007-12-17 19:56:48
LONDON (December 7, 2007) — The Dogs of War may have been on show, but they were wearing their best collars, and the muzzles were definitely on.
The British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC) was gathering for its annual conference in London – its second since the association was formed last year “to raise the standards of operation of its members and this emergent industry”.
Outside in the drizzle stood a small band of protesters dressed in combat uniforms. They carried giant papier mache guns and a sign: “Stop mercenary killing”.
But inside the historic and highly respectable headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society that image seemed a world away.
In a dimly lit hall, about 120 smoothly dressed participants, mainly men, and all with a certain military bearing about them, watched Powerpoint presentations and listened to speeches about risk insurance and multi-cultural sensitivities.
Represented were some of the UK’s most successful “mercenaries” – although that is not a term the BAPSC is keen to use.
According to an official UN definition, a “mercenary” is someone who is “motivated to take part in hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain”.
The BAPSC argues that this is an unsatisfactory definition: “How do you measure the term ‘desire’?” said a spokeswomen.
Whatever the final definition, and however hard the Association works to spruce up the image of its industry, there is no doubt some of its members have a chequered past.
Such as Tim Spicer – the former Sandline veteran who in the 1990s was contracted to supply weapons and “professional services” to the government of Sierra Leone – then under attack by a rebel army.
He now heads up security firm Aegis, whose representatives attended the conference.
Aegis recently won a renewal of its contract with the US Department of Defense to provide security in Iraq.
It meant a windfall of more than £230m for the firm, which now employs an estimated 1,500 contractors in the country.
Aegis people guard convoys, share intelligence and provide “close personal protection” for US civilians.
The British government is also increasingly reliant on private security firms. In Afghanistan, the Foreign Office is spending £19.6m this year on protection provided by ArmorGroup, whose chairman is former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
An FCO spokesman said: “With the UK government’s increasing commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan, and an increasing number of civilians that that entails, it’s fair to say we are making more use of private security firms.”
Even though huge sums of money are already being spent, many private contractors see it merely as a profitable foretaste of things to come.
BAPSC chief Andrew Bearpark estimated his members now employ about 10,000 contractors worldwide. Some firms are now diversifying into areas such as African landmine clearance and most still provide security in hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr Bearpark acknowledged that while there may have been some short-term contraction in demand for his members’ services in Iraq, in the longer term prospects have never looked healthier.
He said: “The British Government has ever-increasing ambitions in terms of foreign policy and operations abroad.
“But the British military is more and more strapped. I think it is inevitable that in years to come, the private security companies will be asked to make up some of that shortfall.”
No Body Bags
One of the delegates at Tuesday’s conference, who did not give his name, gave his insight into why governments like to work with private security contractors.
“Private security companies are not subject to political considerations in the same way conventional armies are. Plus you don’t necessarily have to flag up money you spend on hiring mercenaries. It doesn’t necessarily appear in the official defence budget,” he said.
“Most importantly, if a private security contractor is killed on active duty, you don’t get any body bag pictures on the front pages. That means no bad publicity for the government.”
If the cast list on Tuesday was anything to go by, the UK government has already built close links with the private security industry.
At least 10 senior civil servants were listed as attending the conference – including representatives from the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and even the Cabinet Office. Unsurprisingly, none of them would speak openly about why they were there.
But the BAPSC knows it has to create and maintain a spotless reputation if it is to continue to work closely with democratic governments
That is the reason the security industry is so keen for the government to bring in its regulation proposals – first promised back in 2002.
Mr Bearpark said: “For the Ministry of Defence to work with private companies, it has to feel comfortable that it is working with reputable ones.”
The BAPSC believes that stricter rules will both give the official seal of approval to bona fide security companies – and also help to weed out any “rogue” firms which give the industry a bad name.
Currently, the security company Blackwater appears to be top of the British firms’ hate list.
The US contractor is being investigated following an incident in Baghdad last September, in which 17 Iraqis died. It was the latest in a number of controversial incidents involving the company.
The shadow of the company lay heavy over Tuesday’s conference, with speaker after speaker referring to the damage its actions may have caused to the reputation of private security firms worldwide.
Said one: “We are already disliked and misunderstood, and the behaviour of Blackwater has brought headlines.
“I don’t believe anyone in this room thinks we should operate outside the law and be allowed to murder people. If anyone here does believe that, then we are stuffed.”
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell later said that the company was now routinely “used as a scapegoat”, whenever anything went wrong in Iraq.
“If anything bad happens everyone now always assumes that Blackwater is behind it – even when British firms are to blame,” she said.
She said new rules on operational procedure and accountability had already been agreed between Blackwater and the US government.
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